Years ago, while reevaluating the comics strips my newspaper was publishing, I chanced across some considerations about survey results that changed my perspective. It’s not just whether something’s popular or not, but also the intensity of the attraction — or repulsion.

The conventional thinking would look at the popularity of certain items and rank them by overall readership. In terms of a newspaper, that would ask: What was the most popular story? The most popular category? The most popular length? As if everybody essentially follows the same tastes.

Conventional wisdom would also tally complaints the same way. The more complaints, the fewer likes, right?

Hold your horses! The safest approach is not always the sanest.

I’d already heard about one newspaper where the cartoon strip Doonesbury came in as the most detested feature, at least in calls and letters to the editor’s office. Convention would order the comic be cancelled. The paper, by coincidence, was also looking at some professional marketing research results as the boss was pondering a decision, and those figures had Doonesbury as the most popular feature. Higher than Dear Abby or Ann, even.

It was what more readers wanted to read than anything else. Add to that the consideration that nobody was forcing anybody to read anything. If you don’t like it, move on. (Except maybe the folks who didn’t like it still kept reading it?) It’s one thing to dislike something yourself, but to insist it be taken from others? That line of reasoning would lead me to remove onions from cookbooks, menus, and dishes worldwide, if I ever had the option. (Lucky world.)

Back to the task at hand. While my research was hardly scientific – we were relying on readers who took the time to fill out coupons and mail them to us – I asked the respondents to rank their selections from 1 to 10, starting with their most favorite and moving down. It proved to allow me a crucial insight.

If I counted up all the votes for a particular strip, I got one result. As I recall, Peanuts was the leader in that tally.

But if I looked at only the top three picks from each respondent and weighted them for first-, second-, and third-place preference, Peanuts fell from the picture altogether. I was looking for spikes – for excitement, actually. Three new strips at the time – Garfield, Cathy, and the Far Side, if memory serves – topped the tally, something none of us counting the results would have predicted. We rearranged our page accordingly, and, no, we didn’t cancel Peanuts, though Spiderman and a few others gave way to new entries selected by our readers in some followup surveys.

Later, I learned of far more sophisticated work being done along these lines – and that some features, such as crossword puzzles or bridge columns, may have low overall numbers but be the overriding reason a reader buys that paper from day to day.

As one decision-maker told me, a fresh way of looking at the composite package would be to ask what is the last thing you could cancel before you lose that reader.

Hmm …

I suppose similar kinds of thinking occur in running, say, a supermarket, where you can at least test the results in actual sales day to day or week to week.

For me, though, the insights spring to mind when I look at the political scene. We could start with the polling or leap into the actual voting, but every candidate and party is a package of many issues, interests, and positions.

It’s that intensity factor I wonder about. How often do we go for the least objectionable over something that generates heat, pro and con?

Just what excites a supporter, no matter what, over simply going along or just sitting this one out?

Look at the number of Americans who don’t vote. Can that blandness be one of the reasons?

I keep remembering the Ron Paul supporters who stayed true to their presidential preference, election after election. Maybe deep down they knew he didn’t have a chance, but they turned out anyway with their time and money. Their intensity helped keep the message in the air, possibly influencing others.

So here I am, looking for intensity. Someone could possibly write a calculus of the point where a minority side’s intensity overrides the majority’s blander leanings and actually sways the outcome.

Maybe if we could keep some of that intensity rising, we’d get more people at the polls, even if it’s only to register their protest.

To me, it’s far more telling than the question of “likely voter.”



  1. I would say that an intense minority has dominated most U.S. elections, both local and national, since the 1980s. And I’m quite certain that we would have a tremendous turnout if voters could vote “no” for candidates, essentially registering a vote of no confidence. We could probably do some good housecleaning that way.

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